Monday Motivation: Good writers say it simply
It’s an old story oft told but one worth telling and retelling: simple is best, clear is most beautiful.
It’s true that writing requires artifice and contrivance. Threaded through even the apparently simplest of stories is structure and form that required the writer to think and plan and write and revise.
And beneath the skin of a story that the writer might have whipped off in just a few hours lie years of forethought and experience. Dumb luck might, of course, account for some early success, but that’s rare. What’s much more likely is that the success of that little artless tale is due to a great deal of art.
So how do we achieve that apparent artlessness?
I’d say that the secret lies in those two goals: to strive for simplicity and clarity. There is something about a simple sentence that is, in itself, quite beautiful. Take the opening line of One Hundred Years of Solitude:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
Or take the opening of a short story by Sally Rooney:
“Nathan was waiting with his hands in his pockets beside the silver Christmas tree in the arrivals lounge at Dublin airport. The new terminal was bright and polished, with a lot of escalators. I had just brushed my teeth in the airport bathroom. My suitcase was ugly and I was trying to carry it with a degree of irony. When Nathan saw me he asked: What is that, a joke suitcase?”
There’s no pretension here. It’s simply written. The scene is suggested with just a few details. The protagonist introduces herself without fanfare and with a note of humour. It’s clear and precise and unambiguous.
And for all these reasons, I’d argue that it’s also beautiful prose.
There’s something about the challenge of writing, though, that tempts many of us to try too hard, to seek to create a patina of sophistication or an air of erudition in the hopes that this is what will persuade our readers that we’re the real McCoy, that we’re serious writers.
The trouble with serious writers is that their pretensions are all too visible. It’s a bit like the subject of a photograph who poses too obviously: he comes across as stiff and self-conscious.
Banish self-consciousness and you’ll be one giant step closer to those twin goals. Think less about the reader’s opinion, and more about the words dancing on the page; less about the slings and arrows of the critics, and more about the simple meaning of your story, and you’ll be halfway home.
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: A character needs ‘oomph’ to power a story‘
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